I hope you fall is off to a wild start!
I was just reading one of Michael Easter’s blog posts where he discusses protein intake and one thing he pointed out blew my mind: “Sarcopenia is a really big issue among older adults. Sarcopenia is when you start to lose muscle. One thing you have to remember here is that the biggest driver of sarcopenia is just not eating enough.”
Of course, movement and exercise are major factors in maintaining muscle, too. In this case, the topic was whether protein intake should increase or decrease as we age. The quote was surprising to me, yet it’s so simple. Throughout my life, older people I’ve known have pointed out to me that they just aren’t hungry. Their portions get smaller and smaller as they get older. They start sharing meals when they easily ate a whole meal just a year before. I took this as a truth of getting older, along with so many other things. By the time my grandma was in her mid-80s she was probably eating 1,000 calories a day. Perhaps even less. Her doctor gave her nutritional protein shakes but she didn’t like them so she didn’t drink them and just picked at things like fried chicken and pastries. I’ve also seen this thought process in older people who aren’t in their 80s. People in their 70s and even their 60s, who are eating less and less because “I’m just not hungry, I don’t eat as much as I used to.” It’s so prolific that restaurants even offer smaller portions for older people on their menus. I just assumed that it was a natural course of aging that our appetite decreases and thought nothing more of it.
My dad, however, is always the outlier, bustin’ myths! He is 71 and as far as I’ve seen, he is still eating the same amount of food that he always has. My dad has always been very active with a lot of interests that keep him off the recliner. He pays no mind to societal norms around aging while also acknowledging he does need more time to rest and recover. He spent last week out in the western US mining for rocks and minerals. He swung a rock hammer and a metal detector for hours every day. He rucked more than 500 pounds of rocks down mountains to his truck (in numerous trips) which he looks at under a special microscope. On an average day, he hikes 2 miles with his dog in the woods. He can still spend hours trekking throught the snow. What I realized was that his appetite has kept up with his activity level and he’s still quite strong as well.
It’s crazy to me that I never made that connection before. It makes sense. Getting older does change things. Our hormone levels change, our routines and habits change when we retire, and all of that can lead to things like changes in sleep patterns which can leave us feeling tired. When we are tired we often take that as a sign that we need to be less active. Less activity impacts our metabolism and associated hunger cues. It becomes a circular problem that then feels like it’s “just part of aging” but it doesn’t have to be so detrimental. Perhaps the “cure” to some of those things isn’t to assume they are normal but to see what has fallen out of awareness and to work to improve it. If you walked every day on your lunch break before you retired, you need to find a way to keep up that walk. Perhaps you packed healthy lunches and now you often skip lunch. If you are tired more often, increasing your activity level can increase your energy, improve your appetite, and also help you to sleep better.
About the Protein
As far as the protein debate, older people necessarily need to increase their protein. It’s that the decrease in their appetite has naturally led them to consume less protein and as a result that decrease in appetite needs to be considered. When was the last time you thought about your protein, or how much you are eating in general? You should have some protein with every meal. If you ever see Dan’s Instagram Reels or Facebook Stories, you’ve probably noticed that is exactly what he does. Every meal has a good amount of protein. More typically as a society, we eat little-to-no protein with breakfast, a little bit at lunch, and a bunch of protein for dinner. It’s more ideal to spread it out amongst your meals. That makes it more available for your body to utilize as well as making it easier for you to eat enough.
The current RDA in the US is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for the average adult. For me, that recommendation is low. I feel better when I eat more protein so I aim for 1.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. The key to this calculation is grams and kilograms. Make sure you convert your weight in pounds to kilograms first. I once made the mistake of calculating grams of protein per pound of body weight which for me was way too much at 216g of protein. Typically I eat closer to 120g of protein daily with the 1.5g per kg calculation.
It is worth noting that the RDA is basically the minimum recommendation for an average adult. Most people benefit from increasing the amount, especially if you are not sedentary. Dan and I talk often about how the idea of the “lowest common denominator” creeps into our health advice, and it’s not the way either of us chooses to live. We want to do better than “minimum recommendations.” In fact, for people over the age of 65, this study suggests that eating up to twice the RDA may be the most beneficial to avoid sarcopenia/muscle loss.
This calculator can help you get started. It will gives a range of recommendations for protein based on what the AMA, CDC, and WHO recommend. You’ll see the range is pretty big. You’ll need to experiment with what works best for you. I don’t aim for 120g of protein daily because someone else said so, but because it’s what I’ve found leaves me feeling the best.
One thing I have learned is that when I really need to know what I am eating, weight my food is the most accurate. The vague serving size recommendations you have probably heard are usually highly inaccurate. They are meant for very rough guesses, not determining if you are eating a healthy amount of nutrients. You may have seen something like “3 ounces of meat is about the size of the palm of your hand.” If your steak is 1.5 inches thick that’s different than a .5 inch thick steak. And our hands are all different sizes! Weigh it, then Google “how much protein is in an ounce (or gram) of New York Strip” and do the math. Because our son is a type 1 diabetic, we learned that guessing macronutrients based on a food’s size or appearance was grossly inaccurate. If you really need to know what you are eating, weigh it. We use a nutrition scale because it’ll do the math for you
Beware of “Healthy” Protein Snacks
Protein can be a challenge because it almost always requires cooking, whether you eat chicken or chickpeas. As a result, it can be tempting to grab one of those “protein cookies” from the gas station since something that highlights the high protein content has to be better than other options, right? Not necessarily. Yes, the cookie might advertise 15g of protein, but it has a whopping 400+ calories! And probably costs $4 for one cookie, too. 400 calories worth of chicken is going to net you about 85g of protein in comparison without the added junk. If you need a way to get quick protein and don’t happen to have chicken breast on you 😅 boiled eggs are a great option and most gas stations sell them.
As with all things related to nutrition, quality matters. In this case, “quality” refers to the essential amino acid (EAA) profile of various proteins. Interestingly, the same study I linked earlier noted: “the data from the Health, Aging and Body Composition study show that intake of animal protein (with greater content of EAA), but not plant protein, was significantly associated with the preservation of lean body mass over three years in older adults.”
That doesn’t mean it is impossible to get all of your EAAs if you are vegan or vegetarian, but it does mean you likely need to plan the right amounts of the right foods or take an EAA supplement to properly protect yourself from muscle loss later in life.
Activity can be a major driver of appetite because it helps to regulate our hunger hormones and increase our metabolism. If you find you aren’t hungry or aren’t eating enough to get the nutrients you need, try increasing your activity level a little bit at a time. Consistent effort to move throughout the day counts! Try getting out for a walk around the neighborhood first thing in the morning. Take 20 minutes to do a strength workout during the day. Our Momentum app is perfect for this! Then maybe throw in a yoga or mobility session or an evening walk.
Don’t Believe the Myths
So many things we have heard about aging aren’t true. Or they are somewhat true but not for the reasons we think they are. It is not “normal” for your appetite to decrease by half just because you turned 65. When you notice changes in your body and its tendencies, get curious about those changes and start looking at how your habits have shifted in the past year or two. Find out what is recommended for you in terms of nutrient intake and track your food for a few days to see if you are hitting the mark. If you aren’t, ask yourself why. It’s no fun to try to force feed yourself when you aren’t hungry! But perhaps it’s a reminder that your activity level has decreased along with your appetite. Or perhaps both of those things are being impacted by poor sleep. We have some controls over all of those areas of our health.
Our bodies change as we age, but many of the myths that have been perpetuated are not based on fact. It is not a given that we have to suffer all the things we’ve been warned about as we get older. We just need to understand that we still need to pay attention to our habits and look at what is going on when something changes.